July, 2014

A Biblical, Historic and Connected Community, Part 4

In some ways we are connected in ways that seem to be straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. Last year when I was in Moscow, I was able to get a wifi signal on my cell phone while riding on the Metro. With that signal I could post a picture on my Facebook account so all my friends could see what I was seeing. Nearly 5000 miles away, while riding on a train several hundred feet underground, I was connected. But is all of this connection good? Or is the better question whether all this connection is real? Social media gives every appearance of connection but falls short of being authentic and genuine. In this day and age what does it mean to be a connected community?

As the Church, we claim to be a connected community. By what right can we make this claim? The very basis of covenant is a connection. We are God’s people and He is our God. Covenant means we are connected to God. The redemptive story of the Scriptures is the outworking of God’s covenantal love for His people. He is bound to us with a faithful steadfast love. He provides for and sustains us. In His wisdom He prospers and blesses us. We are His people, so we offer Him our praise and worship. We submit to His loving word. We declare to the nations the glory of our great King. He is our Father and we are his children; heirs of the covenant. This is an authentic and genuine connection.

We are also connected to one another. Through Christ we are adopted in the family of God. “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:6,7). If we have the same Father, then we are brothers and sisters. This is why Scripture often addresses the covenant community with the term adelphoi, a gender-neutral term meaning brothers and sisters. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus, the Son of God, is described as the elder brother. The apostle Paul uses the term 132 times to refer to believers. In 1 Timothy 5 he admonishes the church to treat our elders as mothers and father and our juniors as brothers and sisters. In Galatians 6:10 we are encouraged to care especially for the “household” of faith. This same term, “household” is used in Ephesian 2:16 to refer to those who on account of Christ are no longer “strangers and aliens” but rather part of “household” of God. The household refers to those who are connected to the family. Because of Christ, the church has a deep and real family connection. And it is this connection that will outlast all others. The Church is one big family.

We also see throughout the Scriptures that God’s love for His people extends to the generations. The promises of the covenant are passed on from one generation to the next. Before the Fall (Gen 3) God had established the family. The family is the basic building block of all humanity. The normal manner in which God ordained the Church to grow was through children. Abraham’s promise was passed on to Isaac (Gen. 21). From Isaac the promise was passed onto Jacob:

“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of the heaven and will give to your offspring all these land. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” (Gen. 26:3-5).

The Psalms declare, “one generation shall commend your works to another” (Ps 145:4) and “from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (Ps 79:13). The normal mechanism of Church growth is the family. The Fall did not change this, but it added that those outside the family will be brought in as well. As the Church operates as a big family, the family operates as a little church.
Through his rich familial connection, we enjoy authentic and genuine fellowship. We share in the lives of one another. We have real “connection.” This connection is lived out in loving care, compassion, and service to one another. And it also spills over into the lives of those who are not part of this covenant community but who are our “neighbors.”

A Biblical, Historic and Connected Community, Part 3

In Eastern Orthodox churches, the building is typically laid out in a cruciform shape. The center of this cross is traditionally the location of a large dome. On the inside of the dome is will be a painting of Jesus wearing red and blue known as the “Pantocratoros” (Ruler of the Universe). Around the base of this dome will be icons of the apostles. In many of these Orthodox churches, there will be four pillars at the center of the cross and the base of the dome. The four Gospels will be depicted at the top of each of these pillars. On each of these pillars will be icons of the various saints from the Old Testament. The entire structure of the interior worship space is making a theological argument: The whole of the Church is built upon the foundation laid by the saints of old culminating in the glorious second coming of Jesus Christ as Ruler of the Universe. While there are obvious concerns about violating the Second Commandment (i.e. the prohibition of worshiping God with images, cf. Ex. 20:4-6; Deut 5:8-10), the architecture makes a powerful point that we should embrace. As a church we must be rooted in the past as we reach for the future.
God gave the Church the gift of a firm foundation in the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20). God has chosen in his infinite wisdom and providence to reveal his will for us in words. We find our footing and basis in the Word of God which was revealed to us. These words open with, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Gen 1:1). We affirm, therefore, that God created us in time and space. From time past God has elected a people to be His own. His hand has provided for and sustained us. History is a testimony to God’s gracious care for His people. While Scripture remains current and relevant for all ages, we only understand our present in light of our past. We are a Biblical Community and we are a Historical Community.
Creeds and confessions have historically been the manner in which the Church has summarized and communicated the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13) given through Scripture. Clearly, the Bible itself argues that there is a pattern of sound words. This pattern is simply a summary of the themes and content of the theology contained in Scripture. Perhaps the simplest of these is the biblical creed, “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom. 10:9).
The early Church quickly acted to form a creed that reflected the basics of the Christian faith. From this early Roman Creed (ca. AD 100) came the well-known Apostles’ Creed. After the Middle Ages, while the Church was suffering from the abuses of the Roman Catholic leadership, Reformers arose who sought to free the Church from unbiblical teachings and traditions. The confessions of faith which were formulated during this Reformation sought to express clearly and concisely the pattern of sound words in Scripture. Today, we hold the historic Creeds and Reformed Confessions to contain the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scriptures. We are convicted that these creeds and confessions are what Scripture teaches. We are, therefore, unapologetically Reformed.
As we seek to understand the pattern of sound words and our particular context, we step into the rich history of Reformed churches in Northern New Jersey. One of the first “presbyterian” churches in the New World was begun in Newark in 1668. Princeton University began in 1726 as the Log College, a theological seminary for Reformed pastors. Rutgers University was also founded as a school for training Reformed ministers. Significant aspects of the First Great Awakening in the 1720s occurred in the Dutch Reformed communities of New Jersey under the leadership of Rev. Theodorus Frelinghuysen. The famous theologian Jonathan Edwards and preacher George Whitefield frequented the Northern New Jersey area. Our nation’s rich religious heritage owes much to the Northern New Jersey area.
Our particular church worships in the historic White Oak Ridge Chapel. This building was constructed in 1831 as a Sunday School association. The association continued as an independent Bible church until 1986 when Covenant Presbyterian Church assumed the property. We continue to faithfully preach the Gospel that has been proclaimed from this location for the last 180 years.
When we claim to be a Historical Community, we are claiming to be firmly rooted in the past. We see this history as the pillars which give structure to our proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. We long to see our area once again become a wellspring of faithful Gospel preaching and revival.

A Biblical, Historic and Connected Community, Part 2

We are a Biblical Community

Nearly every Christian church would claim to be a Biblical Community. The Bible in some way shapes, forms, or guides the way in which they “do” church. But there are a wide variety of ways in which people will attempt to interpret and apply the Bible. Many pay lip service to the Bible while really basing their ministry on pop culture, cultural norms, or pragmatism. What do we mean when we say we are a Biblical Community?
God has given both General and Special Revelation to His creation. General Revelation has been revealed to all people and thus, all people are “without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). The knowledge of an eternal, powerful, and divine God is evident to all. In this sense, there are no agnostics (those who claim to not know if there is a God) but only those who suppress the truth of what is plain to them (vv.18-19). Through General Revelation we are given a general picture of the Creator and we are invited to explore, study, and exert authority over creation.
Special Revelation, however, is God’s Word delivered to His People to show man what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man (WSC 3). Special Revelation is contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. It is the means by which man comes to a knowledge of salvation. It is the means by which the people of God may be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).
Knowledge and application of God’s complete revelation, both General and Special, is crucial to our living as God’s covenant people. Everything we know is based on God’s gracious revelation to us. We understand the world and our place in it based on it. Scripture, God’s Special Revelation written down by chosen men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church. It must be the foundation of the life of the people of God. God’s revelation, therefore, must the source from which our presuppositions are formed.
A central presupposition that comes from this is that as the people of God, our lives are defined and guided by the covenant relationship we have with God. He is our God and we are His people. He created, sustains, and provides for His people. We were created in His image for His good pleasure. But through the sin of Adam, we all fell. In our fallen state we are helpless, lost, and dead. The Father sent the Son to redeem and restore His Kingdom and His people. We do not deserve this relationship “but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). Through faith in Jesus Christ, those alienated from the covenant relationship are brought into it. The lost are found. The orphan is adopted and made an heir. This story of God’s redeeming love for His people is the story revealed in the living and abiding Word of God. First Peter proclaims that “this word is the Gospel” (1 Pet 1:23-25).
When we claim to be a Biblical Community, we are claiming to be a Gospel-centered community. This life-giving message of hope, redemption, and restoration through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ must always be at the center of what we say and do. This means that our worship, our lives, and our relationships are governed by God’s Word. We live as a community of people under the gracious requirements, stipulations, blessings, and warnings of God’s covenant. This is the way in which we were designed to thrive. Our worship, lives, and relationships are governed by God’s Word and not by pragmatism, cultural trends, or personal whims.
This gives our community a tremendous reason to be glad. God has not left us to ourselves to just “figure it out.” The faithful God “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jam 1:17) will be good to his Word. While cultural norms and expectations, and personal styles and preferences change with every season, God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We can have a firm hope that the faith which brought redemption to our fathers is the same faith which will bring redemption to us and to our children. We don’t have to guess what is allowable today and what is considered “evil.” When the world wants to define what is “good” and “right” based on what their own experience and opinion (cf. Judges 21:25), this family of people under God’s covenant will remain steadfast and rooted in the gracious Word of God.

Living as God’s Covenant People by Glorifying Him and Growing in His Grace: A Biblical, Historic and Connected Community, Part 1

On July 8, 1979 a small group of Christian began meeting for public worship in Millburn, NJ. The Steering Committee of this church plant named this young gathering “Covenant Fellowship Presbyterian Church.” Eventually, Covenant Fellowship became known as Covenant Presbyterian Church of Millburn & Short Hills.
Why was the name “Covenant” chosen for this church? What is a covenant and why is it significant? Our kids have been catechized to answer the question, “What is a covenant?” by saying, “A covenant is a relationship that God establishes with us and guarantees by his Word.” Covenant is the basic promise from God that he will be our God and we will be his people (cf. Gen 12, 17; Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23; Eze 36:28; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10). Covenant is crucial to our being a community of believers. Embedded within the concept of covenant are three values that guide the way in which we “do” church and live as a community. We are a Biblical Community. We are a Historic Community. We are a Connected Community.
We are a Biblical Community. God has revealed himself to us through General and Special Revelation. Everything we know is based on God’s gracious revelation to us. We understand the world and our place in it based on His revelation. Holy Scripture is God’s Special Revelation to us today and it must be the foundation and basis of all we do. We live as a community of people under the requirements, stipulations, blessings, and warnings of God’s covenant. We worship the Triune God according to God’s rule and instruction and not our personal or cultural preferences.
We are a Historic Community. We are a part of the people God has called from eternity past. We are His because He created us. We are His because He sustains us. We are the chosen recipients of God’s grace. Through His sovereign will and gracious acts of providence God has redeemed and preserved His covenant people. We look back to God’s faithfulness through His Word and to the examples of God’s grace exhibited in the Church throughout history. We understand the historic Creeds and Reformed Confessions to contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. We are unapologetically Reformed in our theology. We also step into and assume the rich history of the Reformed churches in Northern New Jersey and the faithful Gospel witness of the White Oak Ridge Chapel of Short Hills. For centuries Christ has been proclaimed from this area and we stand upon their shoulders as we look to continue this labor for generations to come.
We are a Connected Community. Covenant means we are connected to God and He to us. Our connection to God as His people means that we are also connected to one another. All who have been called, justified, and adopted by grace through faith in Christ can call God their Father. All who call God “Father” can call other believers “brother” or “sister.” The Church is a big family. And because of God’s covenant faithfulness to the generations, the family is little church. As a connected community we seek rich covenant fellowship with God and one another. This occurs through the Means of Grace given by God to the Church. We are encouraged, edified, and disciplined through God’s Word. We connect with Him in prayer. Our faith is signified and sealed through the sacraments. Our connection to the covenant community is lived out through compassionate service to our neighbor and the disadvantaged. We are connected to the broader community through a faithful proclamation of the grace and truth of the Gospel. Our work of evangelism and missions is a direct outgrowth of God’s covenant love for His people.
For nearly 35 years Covenant Presbyterian Church has been living as God’s covenant people by glorifying him and growing in His grace. If the Lord should tarry, we pray that we would remain faithful from generation to generation to be a Biblical, Historic, and Connected community.